Labor Trafficking

“If we want to make a significant change in the lives of the 21 million men, women and children in forced labour, we need to take concrete and immediate action….That means working with governments to strengthen law, policy and enforcement, with employers to strengthen their due diligence against forced labour, including in their supply chains, and with trade unions to represent and empower those at risk.”- Guy Ryder, Director-General International Labor Organization 2014


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services distinguishes two primary forms of Labor Trafficking:

Bonded labor, or debt bondage, is probably the least known form of labor trafficking today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people. Victims become bonded laborers when their labor is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan or service in which its terms and conditions have not been defined or in which the value of the victims’ services as reasonably assessed is not applied toward the liquidation of the debt. The value of their work is greater than the original sum of money “borrowed.”

Forced labor is a situation in which victims are forced to work against their own will, under the threat of violence or some other form of punishment, their freedom is restricted and a degree of ownership is exerted. Forms of forced labor can include domestic servitude; agricultural labor; sweatshop factory labor; janitorial, food service and other service industry labor; and begging. (US DHSS, 2012)

Scope of the Problem:

        Two thirds of the estimated US$150 billion in illicit revenue generated by forced labor is sourced by commercial sexual exploitation.  Meanwhile, one-third or US$ 51 billion is sourced through labor trafficking.  Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, mining, forestry, fishing and utilities represent some of the most common industries where labor trafficking has occurred. (ILO, 2014) Recent reports reveal that the scope of this type of exploitation extends even further to include nail salons, restaurants, door-to-door sales, and the hotel industry.

       The United States has seen a number of cases of labor exploitation and human trafficking over the past twenty years.   Labor trafficking knows no boundaries.  It exists in our backyard as evidenced by the 2010 human trafficking case against labor contractor, Global Horizons Inc.  Global Horizons, Inc. was charged with trafficking several hundred people from Southeast Asia to work across farms in Hawaii and Washington.  This case represented the largest US labor trafficking case in recent time.   

Health Impacts of Labor Trafficking:

Similar to sex trafficking, victims of labor trafficking are subjected to various forms of force, fraud and coercion used by traffickers to establish and maintain a victim’s state of involuntary servitude.   Trafficking victims often sustain physical and/or mental injury caused by physical and psychological violence; extreme and often unsafe working conditions; and unsanitary living conditions. 

  • Some of the physical conditions documented include: scars, headaches, hearing loss, cardiovascular/respiratory problems, and limb amputation, chronic back problems, visual impairment and respiratory illness.
  • The psychological effects labor trafficking may include anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, and depression.
  • Child victims of labor trafficking can also suffer long-term consequences to their mental and physical health due to both abuse and the harsh living conditions that often include inadequate nutrition and hygiene to support physical health.  The International Labor Organization estimates that “there are 246 million exploited children aged between 5 and 17 involved in debt bondage, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, the illegal drug trade, the illegal arms trade and other illicit activities around the world. (ILO, 2014)”


US Department of Health and Human Services.  Office on Trafficking in Persons (2012) Fact Sheet: Labor Trafficking. Retrieved from

US Department of Justice (2010, September 2 ) Six People Charged in Human Trafficking Conspiracy for Exploiting 400 Thai Farm Workers. Justice News. Retrieved from

International Labor Organization (2014) Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour.

The Polaris Project.  Retrieved from

Turner-Moss, E., Zimmerman, C., Howard, L. M., & Oram, S. (2013). Labour Exploitation and Health: A Case Series of Men and Women Seeking Post-Trafficking Services. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health J Immigrant Minority Health, 16(3), 473-480.